Jon Rydberg and Dan James will be representing their hometown of Oakdale and their country by heading to Beijing this September to compete in the U.S. Paralympics.
This is Rydberg’s second Paralympics and he will be competing in singles and doubles wheelchair tennis.
“It’s one of the coolest things you can do,” Rydberg said. “Representing your country, your state, everything like that. It’s a whole package deal.”
James is the coach of the U.S. Paralympic tennis team and Beijing will be the third Paralympics he has coached in. James echoed Rydberg’s sentiments about how it feels to be a part of the games.
“It’s really hard to put into words what it means to wear USA on your back,” James said. “To carry a flag into an opening ceremony when you know there’s going to be 91,000 people screaming for us … it’s an immeasurable honor. It makes all the work that we’ve done over the past four years (and for Jon and I over the past 15) all worthwhile.”
Competing at the Paralympic level takes dedication and a strict training regimen.
To qualify for the games, James said, they have to compete in a minimum of 15 tournaments, four to six of which have to be international. “We have 130 pro tournaments on our tour all over the world.”
Rydberg takes part in regular training sessions to condition his body and hone his tennis skills before competition.
For at least two to three weeks, and several times per week, Rydberg will train on the tennis court and spend time in the gym, James said. “It’s a big commitment.”
An early start
Rydberg first became interested in tennis when he was about 11-years-old.
“I was playing tennis on my crutches before I started playing wheelchair tennis,” Rydberg said.
His father fastened a racket to one of his crutches so he could play with his friends, he said. At the age of 15, Rydberg turned to wheelchair tennis.
“When I found out that there was a wheelchair professional tour out there I thought I’d give it a try,” he said.
Rydberg soon became one of the best players in the world and he’s had numerous achievements along the way. In 2007, he earned a gold metal in singles competition and a silver metal in doubles competition in the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, according to his bio on the official Paralympic Web site, www.paralympic.org.
Rydberg has been limited to walking with crutches or in a in a wheelchair since the age of 1, but that hasn’t stopped him from excelling in tennis and basketball.
He was a former collegiate wheelchair basketball player at Texas-Arlington, where he earned a full scholarship. Rydberg also took some time off from tennis after competing in the 2004 Athens Paralympics to play basketball for the Minnesota Rolling Timberwolves. After taking nearly a year off from tennis Rydberg returned from his hiatus and began training for the Beijing games. Rydberg is currently ranked 11th in the world in singles wheelchair tennis and 16th in the world in doubles, according to the International Tennis Federation.
Last week, Rydberg and James put on a wheelchair tennis clinic for local youths interested in learning how to play wheelchair tennis. During the clinic, Rydberg demonstrated some of the playing techniques that make him one of the best in the world.
The clinic was sponsored by the Courage Center, which offers Rehabilitation, recreational, vocational, community living and mental health services to people with physical disabilities.
Rydberg’s skills have evolved with coaching and practice.
“The best parts of my game are my top spin backhand and my mobility,” he said.
Those skills were on display earlier in the day as well when Rydberg was taking part in a training session for the games. He traverses the court extremely well, making good use of his speed and powerful forehand swing.
James competed in tennis at the collegiate and pro level before he started coaching and working with youth.
“I played at Gustavus, I played here in Minnesota in the junior circuit and after I graduated I became a tennis pro,” James said. “Wheelchair tennis just kind of fell into my lap. It happened to be one of the hours that I took on when I started coaching and I fell in love with it. I found out later that they did not pay an hourly wage for that, so I did it volunteer for about seven years before it became my actual work.”
Rydberg credits his competitive nature and the support he gets from his family and James’ coaching for his success.
“You could throw a piece of paper on the floor and if it was a competition to see who would be the first one to get it I’d be right down there,” Rydberg said of his competitiveness. “I just really hate to lose.”
Rydberg will have a contingent of people heading to Beijing to watch him compete on the international stage.
“I have six people coming,” Rydberg said. “Mom, dad, step mom, step dad, my little brother and my girlfriend. It’s always good to have a little fan club there, especially ones that will only root for you. It’s a big bonus, you always hear them yelling and screaming when you’re playing. It’s good to have that support.”
The quest for excellence is apparent in how James and Rydberg approach the game.
“I think at this level, whether it’s coaching or playing, you set a standard for yourself to not lose,” James said. “When you want to be the best you’ll do whatever it takes to get to that point. If Jon has to do an extra set of repetitions in the weight room, or if I’ve got to go to that third seminar to learn that extra thing that might put us over the edge we do it.”
Past experiences at the games were more than memorable for Rydberg and James.
“I think one of the greatest parts of the Paralympics is that you get close to other athletes and other coaches (when) you’re living with them at the village,” James said. “You start to build this bond because you’re all USA. I remember in Sydney the entire women’s basketball team came to the tennis center and started chanting ‘USA.’ For tennis … this quiet little sport, and here are these rowdy ballers, all chanting. It was awesome.”
The Paralympics got their start in 1948, according to their Web site. In that year, Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports competition involving World War II veterans with a spinal cord injury in Stoke Mandeville, England. Four years later competitors for the Netherlands joined the movement and the international competition was born. The official Olympic-style games for disabled athletes began in 1960 in Rome. Since that time, the games have grown in scope and popularity.
The Beijing games will run Sept. 6 – 17 and feature athletes from six different Disability categories.
Rydberg and James will have their work cut out for them at the games, but they relish the challenge.
“Most of the people involved in a sport at this level are in search of excellence,” James said. “It’s great to be surrounded by that because it really pushes us. It’s a non-stop quest.”
Derrick Knutson can be reached at 651-748-7825.